World Cup 2014

06.14.14

The Group of Life

Plucky Costa Rica upsets vaunted Uruguay, as Italy outsmarts England.

It’s the hoariest of World Cup clichés, but every cup throws up its “group of death,” so called because of a lopsided concentration of top-class teams in one group. This cup’s G.O.D. is Group D, which packs the combined wallop of Italy, Uruguay, England…and Costa Rica.

The ellipses in the last sentence would have been a writer’s attempt at irony a week ago, but deployed today, they are intended as a mark of respect, a doffing of the cap. Costa Rica, the group’s minnows, humbled Uruguay, ranked 7th in the world and regarded, before its 3-1 loss today, as a credible contender for the cup. The group of death has become the group of life—Pura Vida. Those words, which mean “pure life,” are Costa Rica’s motto, its national refrain. The tiny Central American country’s proudest boast is that it is the only one in the world without a standing army. That will be a harder claim to make after today: its soccer team is a doughty legion.

Doughty, too, was England, in its game against Italy, although unfruitfully so.  Its young front line ran hard at the Azzurri, harrying hardened defenders with speed and, yes, panache. How refreshing it was to see England players swivel and dribble and sell dummies. Raheem Sterling, only 19, has the smooth moves of a Brazilian forward (to go with a baby-face that looks uncannily like the Pele of 1958,  with more hair on his head). Equally incisive were Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge, and the three young Afro-Englishmen electrified the game.  A pity they were let down by Wayne Rooney, though the Manchester United bull did have one superb moment, when he belted a pass through to Sturridge in the 37th minute that resulted in England’s handsome equalizer. 

England, in the end, were undone by Andrea Pirlo, Italy’s captain and playmaker, and the one all-time great on the field. So superbly did he pace Italy’s game, so deft was his orchestration, that his players were cruising in the last 15 minutes, even as England wilted in the heat and humidity of Manaus, as knackered by the end as they were robust in the beginning.

The most outstanding player of the day, however, wasn’t the Italian geneneralissimo. It was Joel Campbell, the architect of Costa Rica’s joyous upset. This 21-year-old forward took Uruguay apart, and one would love to see him, one day, in a Bayern Munich shirt, or even at Real Madrid. His is a rare talent, blending super-abundant skill, speed and self-confidence, and toward the end of the game, Uruguay paid him the highest Uruguayan compliment: a defender hacked him down with a vicious boot to his shin. If you can’t beat ‘em, kick ‘em. Happily, pura ira—pure ire—was no match for pura vida.